Demand for wills surges as coronavirus has 'focused people's minds' — here's where to start

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

The escalating coronavirus outbreak has cast a shadow of uncertainty over most aspects of daily life, prompting a surge in demand for wills and life insurance policies as people move to secure their futures. 

This week, deVere Group, one of the world's largest financial advisory firms, recorded a 76% jump in demand for wills in the two weeks to the end of March. Meanwhile, life insurers have reported a spike in new business of as much as 50%.

The uptick is not surprising given the severity of the pandemic, which has so far claimed more than 53,000 lives worldwide and infected over one million people globally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

But it has "focused people's minds" on an area of financial planning that is often neglected, according to deVere's CEO Nigel Green.

New urgency

And it's not just the elderly and the vulnerable acting, legal practitioners in the U.S., U.K. and Australia told CNBC Make It.

"The surge in will-making is ... from across the spectrum," said Melinda Giles, executive committee member of the U.K.'s Law Society. "Some are those who began the process and let it drift, but the majority in my experience are people who have not made a will before."

The shift follows a steady depletion in the number of people creating wills over recent years. 

Today, fewer than a third (32%) of American adults have a will — down 25% from 2017 levels, according to a study from In the U.K., that figure is estimated to be less than 50%.

Changing landscape 

However, the newfound demand is being undermined by certain measures aimed at curbing the coronavirus.

Currently much of the planet is under varying degrees of social distancing measures, making it difficult for new wills to be formalized. For a will to be valid under normal circumstances, it must be signed by two witnesses — both present at the same time and unrelated to the client.

U.K. lawmakers are now looking at temporarily relaxing those rules. They are considering reducing the number of witnesses required or accepting other options, such as video signing. In the U.S., meanwhile, different states have taken different approaches to remote notarization. 

Such amendments could provide peace of mind while reducing the risk of spreading the disease, Emily Deane, technical counsel at the Society of Trusts and Estate Practitioners, told CNBC Make It, welcoming the use of technology as another alternative.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the importance of having a will cannot be underestimated. Creating a will offers you reassurance that your assets ... will be handled according to your wishes.
Nigel Green
CEO of deVere Group

Already, technology is playing an increasing role in will-writing. A number of online estate planning start-ups having emerged in recent years. Indeed, the uptick in deVere's applications comes as it launched a new online wills service. 

However, online options continue to require oversight from professional lawyers to safeguard against bad actors, said Bryony Cove, partner at London law firm, Farrer & Co. Currently, most online wills are still subject to two in-person signatories. 

Getting started

Most countries' statutory law ensures that when someone passes away, their assets are left to their nearest relatives, meaning that people needn't rush to create wills without proper consideration, noted Michael Ettinger of Ettinger Law Firm in the U.S.

However, deVere's Green said he hoped more people would be moved to think about their financial futures.

"Pandemic or no pandemic, the importance of having a will cannot be underestimated," said Green. "Creating a will offers you reassurance that your assets ... will be handled according to your wishes."

Where there's a will

That includes not only those most at risk, but also anyone with assets, minor children or special needs situations, Jody D'Agostini, a financial professional at Equitable Advisors, told CNBC Make It. 

She recommended starting by figuring out who you would like your assets to go to, and who will be your power of attorney or health-care directive, then seek guidance from a reputable advice. 

Now would also be a good time to revisit the beneficiary information on your life insurance and retirement accounts — such as IRAs (individual retirement accounts) and 401(k) plans — to ensure they are up-to-date, she said.

"These are frightening times, but this may be the catalyst to confront issues that we like to avoid; such as our own mortality," said D'Agostini.

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